Marsha R. Joyner, one of five students who integrated Western High School in 1954 and spent the rest of her life as a civil rights and human rights activist, died April 10 of cancer at her daughter’s home in Oahu, Hawaii. The former Baltimorean was 82.
The former Marsha Rose Hood, the daughter of Marshall Hood and his then-wife, Elizabeth Murphy Oliver, city editor and columnist for the Baltimore Afro-American, was born in Brazil, Indiana. Because her father was in the Army, she spent her early years in Hawaii, Guam and Saipan before moving to West Baltimore when she was a teenager.
Ms. Joyner was the surviving granddaughter of Rose Oliver, the eldest daughter of John H. Murphy, who purchased the bankrupt Afro-American newspaper in 1897. Since that time, the paper has been continuously owned and operated by the Murphy family.
She was also a direct descendant of John Oliver, a former slave who became an attorney and served on the grand jury that indicted Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, for treason.
“Well, he lived during the time when Jim Crow was the law of the land and segregation was everywhere. That’s just the way it was,” Ms. Joyner explained in a 2012 interview with the D.C. Everest School System in Weston, Wisconsin, for an oral history project.
“The civil rights movement didn’t start in the ‘50s — it started when the first slave said, ‘I’m not gonna do this.’ It always was a civil rights movement, it just wasn’t called such. People protesting had all kinds of things against slavery and against discrimination for hundreds of years. so this wasn’t something new,” she said.
“It was always something that was a part of my life because the newspaper [Afro] fought against discrimination for more than a hundred years. I think it’s a hundred and twenty-five years now. So that was always a part of my life. This wasn’t something new. For me, I think for most African Americans and other minorities, that was always a way of life, the struggle against this whole way of life in America. It wasn’t just the South — it was all of the United States.”
Ms. Joyner told a reporter that she was “born into a family of causes” and that a primary purpose in her life was to effect change and “create a world in which all human beings were treated justly and equally,” Joseph Green-Bishop and John J. “Jake” Oliver Jr., publisher and chairman emeritus of the Afro-American Newspapers and her first cousin, wrote in a biographical profile.
Activism came early to her. She joined four other African American girls who successfully integrated Western High School following the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education case, which ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional.
When the decision was handed down, Ms. Joyner said in an interview that Mildred Coughlin, the principal of Western said, “I will never see a colored girl graduate from my school.”
“Her school, Western High School, was one of the high-class schools in Baltimore. Those schools were not only segregated by race, but they were also segregated by gender. The top schools in Baltimore were all that way, male and female. So, Western High School was the best, in terms of all-girl schools,” Ms. Joyner said.
Ms. Joyner and four other girls were picked and entered Western on Sept. 7, 1954, in the 11th grade, when the school was located downtown at Howard and Centre streets.
“They were very nice, at least no one was ugly. No one was overt. It was covert racism. No one spoke to us,” she recalled. “We were all in different classes, so we weren’t together. I was alone for eight months. Nobody shared their notes, there were no social activities, none of the things that go along with high school. None of the things that you know, no sports, no friends that you go shopping with or anything like that. Nothing.”
A Jewish refugee from Germany, Renda Ruckman, embraced Ms. Joyner and spoke to her, and she said she learned more about World War II because her friend had lived through it than she ever learned in history books.
“I guess in retrospect I learned a lot. I didn’t have anything else to do,” she recalled. “When I told my mother no one would speak to me, her first comment was, ‘You’re not supposed to be talking in school, you’re supposed to be learning.’ So there was no such thing as telling my mother no one would speak to me. ... Anyway, we got through. Well, racism and discrimination was bad. It was really bad. It didn’t matter how much education you had or how much money you had.”
After graduating from Western, Ms. Joyner attended Howard University during the late 1950s, where she got “physically involved standing up to segregation,” she explained in the interview, in the civil rights movement, walking picket lines, spending nights in jail and registering Black voters.
As an active member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, she realized that Blacks had to be a part of the interworking of the political process.
“You know, they talk about Blacks being in the Democratic Party. Well, they didn’t open the doors and say, ‘Y’all come.’ We literally broke down the doors of the Democratic Party to be part of the system,” she said in the interview. “To be a part of just voting in November isn’t good enough. You have to be inside to see where the decisions are made. You have to participate at that level, the precinct level. Then your voice counts, and you become part of it.”
Ms. Joyner lauded the 1960 presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy as being a seminal moment in the struggle for civil rights.
“It was only when we became part of the system that we learned how to do that,” she said in the oral history. “We got the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By 1964 and 1966, there were huge numbers of Blacks elected into office because we learned how. ... So, that to me is the most important part of the civil rights movement.”
In 1989, Ms. Joyner married Kenneth Joyner, a senior naval chief, and in the 1990s the couple settled in Hawaii, where she worked closely with local and state government officials. She was program director of the Hawaii Peace Center and for the past 27 years was executive director of the Hawaiian National Communications Corporation.
She was a former president of the Dr. Martin Luther King Coalition-Hawaii, which she founded in 1991, and worked with members of the community and elected officials to make the civil rights leader’s birthday a public holiday in Hawaii. On the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, she was named a Peace Leader awardee.
Her name is engraved on the Wall of Tolerance at the Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
In recent years, she was one the leaders of a national movement petitioning the Navy Department to have the Navy Cross awarded to Doris “Dorie” Miller, the first Black to receive the decoration, who was a cook aboard the battleship USS West Virginia, upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941, he manned an anti-aircraft machine gun and attended to the ship’s wounded captain. He was killed in action in 1943.
Reflecting on her life and activism, Ms. Joyner once said: “I see my role in life as a grain of sand. To make a truly beautiful pearl there must be a grain of sand in the oyster. To make a truly beautiful world ... there must be people like me ... the irritants that keep everything growing.”
A memorial service will be held May 18 at the Ballard Mortuary in Oahu. Contact the funeral home regarding viewing the services by Zoom.
In addition to her husband of 32 years, she is survived by three sons, Elmer German of Honolulu, and Christopher German and Gregory German, both of California; a daughter, Marilyn Carter of Oahu; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.